September 24, 2019 Special Dispatch No. 8289

Prominent Russian Commentator Saprykin: During 20 Years Of Putin, Society Has Undergone A Transformation

September 24, 2019
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 8289

The prominent Russian commentator Yuri Saprykin wrote a long editorial on the transformation of Russian society over the last 20 years, since Russian President Vladimir Putin took power.

In the article, Saprykin describes the changes in Russia's national idea and identity, through the lens of Russian director Aleksei Balabanov's iconic movies, Brother and Brother-2.

Saprykin explains that the original "Brother", released in 1997, expressed the Russians' yearning for the restoration of justice in its most basic forms. The sequel, "Brother-2," released in 2000, defined a sense of national humiliation, resulting from the sense of defeat in the Cold War and the destruction of the familiar Soviet way of life. Putinism tapped into these sentiments to build its power. However Putinist ideology was pro forma and Russian society is now moving away to a local patriotism that diverges from Putin's stress on Russia as a great power.

Below is Saprykin's article:[1]


Independent Russia Is A Country That Has Arisen Anew

"Independent Russia is a country that has arisen anew: from scratch it had to solve the question of what place it occupies in the world, what unites the people living in it, what are the relations of these people with the state and what they expect from the state.

"In the 1990s, a society that lost its support of familiar social norms and values was too confused to formulate an answer to the aforementioned questions, and the authorities, who were in a state of permanent crisis, were unable to deal with them. A new era in Russian history, which came with the advent of the new millennium, presented different answers to these questions - answers that came from both above and below.

The Movie 'Brother' Formulated The Will Of The People And Predicted the Course Of The Country's Political Development

"The dramatic events of the late 1990s in Russia - the war of the oligarchs with the government, the August [financial] crisis of 1998, the prime ministerial merry-go-round, the beginning of the second Chechen war, the choice of successor and Yeltsin's resignation - were framed by the release of two Aleksei Balabanov movies with a common protagonist.

"As it seems today, the 'Brother' duology struck a nerve of public expectations, formulated a request to the future authority and, in many ways, predicted the logic of its development. The national idea commissioned by Yeltsin, on whose development an entire intellectual headquarters labored, was formulated in just a few laconic phrases by [the Brother main character] Danila Bagrov. The first 'Brother' [released in 1997] expressed a request for the restoration of justice in its most basic forms - defense of the weak, pushback against the rampaging strong.


Brother, a 1997 Russian crime film directed by Aleksei Balabanov.


"'Brother-2' [released in 2000] recorded a sense of national humiliation, a consequence of the defeat in the Cold War and the destruction of the usual way of life. The phrase 'Strength in Truth', which was worn out since then, was perceived in 1999 not as an indication of the mysterious Russian soul, but as an appeal to simple ethical rules, a hope for a life in which money or brute force do not decide everything, in which there is a top and bottom, black and white. Putin's rapidly growing rating at the end of 1999 is a hope for a leader who can distinguish good from evil and can protect from the latter. Whoever retains the truth is the stronger.


Brother-2, a 2000 Russian crime film.

"The audience, struck by the charm of Sergei Bodrov Jr. [a Russian actor who had lead of Danila Bagrov in the films Brother], forgives his hero for his promiscuous methods. Similarly, in the early 2000s, society turned a blind eye to the fact that the restoration of the rules of the game in the economy and the media was accompanied by the forcible seizure of property, and special operations against terrorists were accompanied by exorbitant civilian casualties.

"Indiscriminate shooting in a film and excesses with forceful methods in Russian politics can be attributed to extreme circumstances: people view this as the requisite payment for their expected deliverance from the state of emergency and the restoration of normality.

"The state of Putin's first term does not try to impose its ideology, does not interfere with private life, it creates conditions for economic growth and new consumer opportunities - and even a series of disasters and tragedies of the early 2000s (Kursk, Nord-Ost, Beslan) were not able to shake the confidence that life is moving in the right direction. 'We are flying home'.

The Government Developed Manners And A Code Of Conduct Similar To The Brother's Main Character

Gradually, the government develops its own style, its own manners, and this code of conduct is suspiciously similar to Danila Bagrov's one.

What seemed to be grotesque details in “Brother”, a product of the director's irony, are in fact the easiest things to understand: anti-Americanism, boyish rhetoric, Soviet nostalgia, corporate and family solidarity - all this becomes everyday practice for the authorities. While the restoration of justice and the final return to a 'normal' life seem to be deferred to the future.

"A political regime under Putin is formulated, whose legitimacy is largely based on the promise of 'no return to the dodgy 90s,' actually becomes a hostage to the worldview and methods of the 90s, where prosperity depends on proximity to the throne, the law is applied under manual control, and power is invariably measured in money. Danila, battling the bandits, is not able to find his place in a peaceful life - just like the new government, which survived in emergency situations of the early 2000s, starts itself to generate them.

"The Yukos case, acts of moral intimidation performed by pro-Kremlin youths, pressure on media, and the assassination of [journalist Anna] Politkovskaya — a society that hoped for a strong and fair leader — didn't expect this, but the government is already starting to live by its own logic, smoothing out the growing tension with sport victories and aggressive foreign policy rhetoric.

"The request for stability in its most philistine version - the reproduction of life at the household level - was realized in the 2000s from below, through the consumer, tourist and gastronomic boom. The population of big cities get used to the idea that 'one must live well', and turned to the state with the exactly that consumer demand. The state in the eyes of the most westernized part of the society is only one of the services that should work efficiently, create additional amenities and be transparent to public control.

"The modernization rhetoric of the Medvedev era supports these expectations, but again brings them to a murky future. In fact, citizens increasingly have to deal with corruption of officials, police arbitrariness and courts that make decisions by the 'call from the top'. The manual decision making of the authorities gives a clear signal that this life framework will remain unchanged, and the 'normalization' that was postponed for the future is finally removed from the agenda altogether.

"A middle class that grew up under Putin is under a cloud of hopelessness, Russian Facebook discusses options for external or internal emigration, optimists calculate how old they will be in six years, pessimists add 12 to their age, realists believe that the era of growing injustice and unresolved social problems will never end. The onset of collective depression was resolved by the explosion of winter protests 2011–2012, after which stability and justice finally turn into rhetorical figures, suitable only for ritual utterances during the 'Direct line with the president' [call-in show with Putin].

The National Idea From Above

"Since 2012, the state is no longer trying to catch the national idea in the air, in order to respond to an unformed public request - but for the first time in post-Soviet history, the state itself formulates an official quasi-ideology, which should become the basis of national identity.

"Russia is a special country. Its foundation is strong power of authority, patriotism, respect for religion and traditional family values. She is surrounded (and has always been surrounded) by a ring of enemies who envy her natural resources and moral virtues. In addition, Russia is a country that defeated fascism and can repeat this if something happens.

"This ideology is affirmed through a series of propaganda campaigns in which society mobilizes in the face of a constructed external threat: art activists who mock Orthodoxy, gay propaganda that undermines the foundations of a healthy family, and foreigners who take Russian children abroad.

"The culmination of this mobilization impulse was the new 'war against fascism' that unfolded on TV screens in 2014, and its main territorial conquest and the euphoria of nationwide triumph that accompanied it did not become its outcome, but only preceded its unfolding.

"The new ideology is not only quasi -but also soft-: it does not require sincere faith and enthusiasm, rather ritual manifestations of loyalty suffices. The radius of its application is also limited: it can explain to riot police why he needs to beat up a teenager with a baton, or work as a compensatory mechanism for residents of single-industry towns living without any prospects and fleeing hopelessness through a sense of belonging to a great strong country.

"But this version of national identity does not at all respond to the requests from which the present power was once born: justice, ethical standards, understandable and universal rules of the game.

"The confrontation exists between social forces demanding for the government to change (or become changeable) and the government, which is not going to do either one or the other. Such confrontation can drag on for a long time - and begin to be perceived as a Russian national peculiarity.

The National Idea From Below

"But it's more interesting to look at something else: those versions of patriotism and national identity that are created today from below, regardless of the state, and can become unifying for society in the future.

"The new formula of the national idea, which became concentrated in the 90s in 'Brother' movies, today is spilling into popular TV shows and YouTube, in the recordings of a new generation of hip-hop artists and street artists.

"This is local patriotism - a feeling of belonging not to a sovereign abstraction, but to a specific place that needs to be treated with care, respect and attention. This is also manifested in the rise of regional local history, in the reassessment of the local historical heritage - in which, for example, constructivism and industrial architecture are no less important than churches and folk crafts; in the boom of domestic tourism, in the fashion for farming and local products, etc.

"This is a romanticization of the Russian provincial life, recognition of the value of even its most nondescript manifestations: like panel houses or sports suits as a uniform of the urban outskirts. Look closely at the 'Husky' clips, or at the Pavel Otdelnov works or the fashion shoot of designer Gosha Rubchinsky.

"This is a new pantheon of cultural heroes - not appointed from above, but chosen spontaneously, in which Andrei Platonov, OBERIU , Yegor Letov or the very same Aleksey Balabanov are perceived as something deeply important that explains the very essence of Russia. This is a completely different attitude towards the 1990s - not as a "dodgy" decade and not as a 'time of freedom', but as a tragic and heroic era, where we all come from (see the series of films about the 1990s by Yuri Dude).

"This was a gradually trained skill of cooperation, of joint actions, unification with neighbors, colleagues and like-minded people for any significant purpose - whether it is a fight against cutting down a park in front of a house, helping the nearest orphanage, or protecting an unjustly detained classmate.

"This is a changing attitude towards the tragedies of the past, a new version of memorial culture - in which not only war heroes, but also victims of criminal actions of the authorities and ordinary people who paid with their lives for tye authorities' incompetence deserve a place in collective memory and reverence (see the dynamics of the development of the 'Return of Names' campaign or the discovery of the Chernobyl disaster by the young generation after the release of the HBO series).

"This is the way to overcome the national inferiority complexes of the older generations (which may be associated with the peculiarities of Russian foreign policy); it is a calm and sober feeling that there are 'Russian norms' (as the video project of Elizabeth Ossetinskaya is called), and living in Russia despite no matter what (as Dud put it in his Instagram).

"And this gap between the government and society, which is ready to accept and conceptualize its own history and identity, without waiting for these principles to be brought down from above, which is able to take responsibility for its life and not wait for the solution of problems from the state - is perhaps the most encouraging news of the end of the 2010s."


[1], August 13, 2019.

Share this Report: